Look on my Works and Despair!–Ecclesiastes 2:9-11

“I am the greatest!” Muhammed Ali famously proclaimed as he neared the height of his boxing prowess. In many ways, Ali was a remarkable man. Although I disagree with what he stood for, he at least stood for something beyond himself, and he was, at his peak, a remarkable boxer.

Today, though, nobody thinks that Ali is, or was, the greatest. Boxing isn’t much of a thing these days, and the human memory is short. Sure, Ali was perhaps the most recognized person in the world as he claimed, but that recognition has been diminished over time. Most people might be able to identify his photo, but they’re more apt to simply know his name rather than to recall him as a living, breathing force of nature.

Ali is going the way of William Jennings Bryan. (This is probably the first time those two have been associated.) Bryan was a major force in politics around 1900. Three times he was the Democratic nominee for president. He served in Congress and as Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson. The bottom line is that he was a big deal, but today he is mostly remembered, if at all, for the insultingly inaccurate portrayal of him as the antagonist in the play Inherit the Wind.

The same could be said for our man Solomon. He’s still a big deal, 3,000 years later, but he’s not nearly as big a deal as he was while on the throne.

So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; my wisdom also remained with me. All that my eyes desired, I did not deny them. I did not refuse myself any pleasure, for I took pleasure in all my struggles. This was my reward for all my struggles. When I considered all that I had accomplished and what I had labored to achieve, I found everything to be futile and a pursuit of the wind. There was nothing to be gained under the sun.–Ecclesiastes 2:9-11

Of course you and I are not as significant as Ali, Bryan, or Solomon. If I were, I’d be working in a slightly more exalted venue than Tune My Heart. If you were, you’d have better things to do, I would guess. But hopefully we have achieved something in our lives. Hopefully we have a bit of something to put on our lives’ resumes. And who really cares?

When I look at my accomplishments, I see a couple of books, a ton of blog entries, some scholarly articles, and a huge mass of children’s Bible study curriculum. I see many hundreds of students taught and a handful of teaching innovations. Nearly all of this stuff is ephemeral, the sort of thing that will not hold up over time. Even some of the brilliant teaching ideas I had when I first walked into a classroom seem like dinosaurs today. My accomplishments are largely pointless.

Percy Shelley understood, presenting this truth in his poem “Ozymandias”:

And on the pedestal, these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains.

What will remain of my works when I’m done? Of yours? That’s why Solomon is in such a gloomy mood in Ecclesiastes.

How to Stop Worrying and Influence People–Ecclesiastes 1:12-15

Dale Carnegie had it all figured out. To “win friends and influence people,” you need to follow a few simple steps. Then, to “stop worrying and start living,” you do a few other things. Millions of people read Carnegie’s books that promised how to do these two things, and many of them found a certain measure of wisdom and success in their pages.

There’s the story of the man who was digging ditches on a county chain gang and happened upon the first Carnegie best-seller. That man, after applying the principles in those chapters, promptly became the president of the third largest railroad in the United States.

Okay, I made up that example, but, dating back to when Carnegie first started making a name for himself teaching public-speaking courses in New York YMCAs, he presented testimonials that were similarly dramatic. Dale Carnegie, it seems, never read Ecclesiastes:

I, the Teacher, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. I applied my mind to examine and explore through wisdom all that is done under heaven. God has given people this miserable task to keep them occupied. I have seen all the things that are done under the sun and have found everything to be futile, a pursuit of the wind.
What is crooked cannot be straightened;
what is lacking cannot be counted. —Ecclesiastes 1:12-15

Our world is full of people who have applied their minds to examine and explore all of the matters of this world. Let’s look at a few who were contemporaries with Dale Carnegie.

  • Sigmund Freud, as the father of much psychology, aimed to plumb the depths of the human mind and help people deal with such matters better.
  • Charles Atlas, the great comic-book advertised seller of a fitness program, tried to turn 98-pound weaklings into strapping specimens of health.
  • Benjamin Graham, author of The Intelligent Investor, developed and detailed the “value-investment” system that lies behind the success of Warren Buffet.
  • Henry Ford, the great mass-producer of automobiles, revolutionized the way that much of life in the world is lived both through his innovations in industry and his popularization of cars.

I could go on, but these four will suffice. And they have one thing in common. They’re all dead. While their “under heaven” wisdom still influences life today, it is ultimately a pointless thing, a thing God has given people “to keep them occupied.”

Wait, is that right? Is all this “under the sun” wisdom just the divine equivalent of magazines in a doctor’s waiting room? Although it isn’t stated explicitly, this idea is embedded in Genesis 3:17-19 when God consigns Adam to eat by the sweat of his brow. Essentially, God seems to allow us, after we have turned from him, to seek our own way and discover how poorly that works.

Don’t think that I don’t appreciate the “under heaven” wisdom builders. Whether we know it or not, Graham and Ford, plus many others, have helped to create the prosperous world that we enjoy today. But if wisdom is restricted to that which is under heaven, then it is temporary and ultimately futile. If our prosperous world is the best outcome of our prosperous world, then life is, as Koheleth would say, futile.

Want to know How to Stop Worrying and Start Living? There’s an answer, but Dale Carnegie apparently didn’t know it.

 

O-for Oriole

Chris Davis can’t buy a hit, and if anybody could, he’d certainly have the cash for it. As of yesterday, he’s gone 49 consecutive at-bats without recording a hit. Granted, this guy has never exactly hit for a high average. For his career, he’s recorded a measly .236 average, including an amazingly awful .168 last season, the lowest average ever recorded by a player who had enough appearances to qualify for the batting title.

This is the man who, not so long ago, inked a seven-year, $161 million-dollar contract. He’s scheduled to make $17 million this year, which is better than $100,000 for every game or roughly $20,000 each time he makes an anemic attempt at reaching base. Granted Davis clobbered 53 home runs in 2013 and 47 in 2015, which is outstanding in these post-steroids days. In those seasons, although striking out far too often, he put up respectable numbers to go with his power output. Then he signed that contract, which promised him more money than the GDP of Belize. (I think I’m kidding but I’m not sure.)

I’d be happy to stand out there and make outs for half the money that Davis is bringing home. Think about it. If we use that $20,000 per at-bat figure, he’s earned almost a million dollars since his last hit. I’m just glad I’m not a Baltimore Orioles fan.

What’s the problem with this man? Is he not trying? I doubt that. Nobody achieves as much as he has achieved without having a certain measure of pride. Is he ill or are his abilities simply tailing off? That’s possible. Is he just in an unlucky streak? Given his past tendencies, I rather doubt that explanation.

But here’s the bottom line. Every time Chris Davis walks to the plate, Orioles fans experience mixed emotions. They’d really love to see the return of that 2013 or 2015 Chris Davis, but then they’re also fed up with the 2018 and 2019 version. You can’t read or hear anything about him–including this writing–that doesn’t mention how much he makes. I feel some sympathy for the man . . . at least until I think about what his paychecks must look like.

Davis’ problem is that for a couple of seasons he was really, really good. Had he never been such a slugger, nobody would think that much of his numbers tailing off. We’re used to seeing marginal players come and go. It’s the nature of sports. But Chris Davis did excel, which makes it harder for people, especially Orioles fans, to see him today.

I could try to offer up some spiritual conclusion to all this. Maybe there’s one out there, but it would be forced. So I’ll try to stop coveting Davis’ money and aim to finish the race while simply again being glad that I’m not an Orioles fan.